Lately some depressing books have been coming my way. Books about individuals being uprooted overnight from their homes, about lives being turned upside down by fate, about entire societies and countries being destroyed. The first of these was a book recommended by a friend, called “The Wave”. It is a first person account by a Tsunami survivor, Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her entire family while holidaying in Sri Lanka, including her husband, her two children and her parents, at one stroke. Just imagining the possibility of losing all that you have in life, at one go, gives me goose bumps and reading the author’s description of the event and of what followed, tore something apart in me. Watching one’s children being literally swept away, and in moments losing contact with one’s loved ones more than defies the strongest imagination and yet this is what happened and one doesn’t wonder at the ensuing madness and suicidal thoughts which followed this experience. Over the years a slow recovery of sorts took place whereby Ms. Deraniyagala was able to put together the pieces of her life and to go beyond the traumatic upheaval of the ill-fated vacation in Sri Lanka in 2004.
The second book which came my way - this one purely by accident - is “What is the what” – also a survivor’s tale. This time the survivor on whose behalf the book was written by Dave Eggers, is Valentine Achak Deng – a refugee from the Sudan. The escapades of these thousands of people, and their experiences of being flushed out of their own territories like animals, if anything, makes even more horrific reading than “The Wave”. In the first instance we are dealing with a natural catastrophe, one of those which belong in the category of “the Unavoidable,” whereas in the book on Valentine Deng’s life, we are looking at unmentionable crimes being committed on each other today, by human beings, in the name of political freedom.
Every day the press reinforces the brutality human beings experience at each others’ hands, in the form of rapes, violent physical torture which is hardly imaginable, and heartless dispossession of the poor, by people in power. For years, in fact till recent times, I fear I have been a part of the tribe of individuals who never really allowed themselves to be affected too deeply by these criminal goings on. Of course it was possible to express the horror of it all but it was all done without allowing oneself to be overly affected by the depth of the crime and the brutality. It often is like that, because to really feel into a situation which defiles all human sensibility, is to be totally shaken, to be affected to the core. It is something that persists somehow in your feelings and thoughts over days and months, a feeling that develops into deep sadness at the human situation and our disinclination to resolve our difficulties with each other in a heartfelt and fair manner. It is the kind of feeling which most of us would rather not experience because finally, no matter how far removed you are from the scene of a particular crime, it makes you super conscious of your own pettiness, your own flaws, or injustices you may have inflicted on others, even if occasionally. The moments of impatience, of hurtful things said, of minor instances of misusing our power over those more disadavantaged than us in life.
We are all influenced to a smaller or greater extent by the society we live in, which is by its nature, exploitative and discriminating. But perhaps to allow ourselves to be deeply touched by what happens not only in our own lives but the lives of others, is what initiates change, simply by creating in us a willingness to listen to something outside of our own personal needs, or more accurately said, the needs of our egos.
The story of Valentine Achak Deng, of the young woman in Delhi who was raped and mauled by five men who threw her off the bus, of the farmers today who are driven to taking their own lives because of the screwed up system we live in, all these are stories if we honestly face them, with the capacity to pull us out of our daydreams of security and the good life which a few individuals have the luck to experience, but who knows for how long. Anger and indignation, while being a natural outcome of what we are experiencing today, and which are the most frequent reactions, are not enough to turn the world inside out and to bring about the peace we are looking for. To allow ourselves to feel the horror and shame of belonging to the kind of society we do, of having in however minor a way contributed to its existence and growth, even if only through ignorance, is only the first step in going beyond it and effecting a genuine transformation. But it is a necessary step.